J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Massachusetts Stamp Act of 1755

As I trace the developments of Parliament’s Stamp Act of 1765 in this year of its sestercentennial, I have to acknowledge that ten years before then, the Massachusetts General Court enacted its own stamp act, or tax on paper.

On 1 May 1755, during the second administration of Gov. William Shirley, the Massachusetts Stamp Act went into effect. It was based on a British act from 1698.

The Massachusetts law passed when it looked like war with the French was inevitable, with Gov. Shirley (highly respected after victories in the last war) recommending new forts in Maine.

The province issued four types of stamps, all circles a little more than an inch across:
  • the half-penny, printed in ink, as shown above; the words “Half Penny” were inscribed at top and bottom with a flying dove in between.
  • the two-penny, embossed; the text says “II Pence” and “Staple of the Massachusetts,” referring to the figure inside, a codfish.
  • The three-penny, embossed; “III,” “Pence,” and “Province of the Massachusetts,” around a pine tree.
  • The four-penny, embossed; “IV Pence” and “Steady” above and below around a schooner under sail.
Over the next two years Massachusetts’s stamp commissioner, James Russell, passed on about £897 in 1756 and £467 in 1757, keeping an additional £260 for his expenses and recompense.

The tax remained in effect for only two years. By then, the war had widened, and Massachusetts expected the Crown to pay more of the defense costs. Like other provincial stamp acts, it never produced big controversy because the colonists’ own representatives passed them and because the money stayed in the colonies. Ten years later, Parliament’s Stamp Act prompted a continent-wide campaign against what became known as “taxation without representation.”

Examples on this collectors’ auction page shows some examples of stamped paper from Massachusetts. Of course, the printed stamp shows up much better in a photograph than an embossed one.

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